Using Biotechnology Innovations, Senomyx Makes New Taste Sensations

Xconomy San Diego — 

San Diego-based Senomyx is using some innovations from the biotech industry to develop novel flavor ingredients to enhance tastes, enable food makers to reduce their costs, and improve the “nutritional profile” of food and beverages. At least that’s the way CEO Kent Snyder described it when I met with him recently.

Snyder emphasized that Senomyx (NASDAQ: SNMX), which was founded in 1999 and went public in a 2004 IPO, does not do any bioengineering of food or food products.

Rather, the company specializes in discovering and optimizing molecules that interact with taste receptors in the tongue. Senomyx uses biochemistry to detail the molecular structure of a receptor, and uses robotic assaying techniques to screen hundreds of thousands of compounds, looking for ones that interact with each receptor. The compounds that are screened come from various sources and are a mixture of natural extracts and synthetisized molecules, according to spokeswoman Gwen Rosenberg. In this way, the company identifies molecules that intensify specific flavors, such as sweet or salty, or block unpleasant flavors. At the end of March, Senomyx said it holds 157 patents on technologies that encompass the company’s work, including its assay techniques and flavor compounds, with another 390 patent applications pending in the United States and elsewhere.

Kent Snyder

Kent Snyder

Senomyx has formed collaborative partnerships with seven major food companies, and works closely with its corporate partners to develop its flavor enhancers. Once Senomyx has developed a particular flavor ingredient and shepherded it through approval for human consumption by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, the corporate partner manufactures the additive for the food industry. Senomyx does not do any manufacturing, and about 75 percent of the company’s 124 employees are in research and development. “All the marketing is taken care of by our collaborators,” Snyder explained.

In the first quarter that ended March 31, Senomyx posted a net loss of $7.4 million on $3.5 million in revenue. In financial guidance for the full year, Senomyx says it expects to report a loss of $24 million to $27 million on total revenue of $18 million to $22 million in 2009. The company ended the first quarter with $33 million in available cash and no debt.

Earlier this year, Senomyx initiated work on two compounds that help block the bitter receptor, so as to make drugs more palatable, especially for children. “Children’s cough and cold preparations tend to be bitter,” Snyder says, and drug makers typically add syrup to mask the bitterness. “But if you can block the bitter taste, you wouldn’t have to add all that sugar.”

A similar concept applies to the company’s efforts to identify compounds that intensify flavors, especially sweet and salty flavors. By devising a molecule that intensifies the taste of sugar, for example, Senomyx says it can help food companies use less sugar to make cookies and soft drinks—without sacrificing flavor. Likewise, a molecule that enhances the flavor of salt would enable food companies to make snacks with less sodium, too much of which can sometimes lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.

More recently, Senomyx announced that one of its major corporate partners, Switzerland’s Nestle, is evaluating the commercial potential a flavor ingredient identified by Senomyx for use in the “coffee and coffee whitener” fields. Snyder says the company’s agreement with Nestle precluded him from providing details of the project. He said only that the ingredient under study could be either a flavor enhancer or a bitter blocker.

In addition to its collaboration with Nestle, Senomyx has established similar agreements with six other major food companies: Coca-Cola, the world’s largest beverage company; Campbell’s, the soup maker; Cadbury, the English candy maker; the Solae Company, a soy products company based in St. Louis, MO; Firmenich, a flavor and perfume company based in Switzerland; and the Ajinomoto Group, a Japanese maker of monosodium glutamate and other food additives.

Human taste buds are wired to react to five primary flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (or umami—the meaty flavor associated with monosodium glutamate). While there at least 25 receptors have been identified to detect bitter tastes, Snyder said that researchers have identified only one receptor for each of three key flavors the company has targeted, sweet, salty, and savory. In each case, however, Senomyx has identified nearby binding sites that act to intensify a particular flavor.

So, for example, Snyder said there is only one sweet receptor that binds with sucrose, or ordinary table sugar. But there are additional sites nearby that bind with other molecules to intensify the sweet flavor. “If you took the sucrose out completely, the enhancer would have no taste of its own,” Snyder said. The company’s program to identify salt enhancers is scientifically very challenging, Snyder added, because the company has found at least 160 compounds that enhance the taste of sodium chloride, or table salt.

The company has been working on multiple compounds in each category of savory, sweet, and salty flavor enhancers. For example, Senomyx has been working with Firmenich to develop S2383, a compound that acts specifically to enhance the taste of sucralose, an artificial sweetener used in Splenda. “Sucralose is sometimes associated with a lingering sweet aftertaste,” Snyder said. But S2383 enhances the taste of sucralose so intensely that it enables food companies to reduce the sucralose content in foods by as much as 75 percent. That not only minimizes the persistent aftertaste of sucralose, but also enables food companies to save money by using less sucralose. Firmenich plan to begin worldwide commercialization of the compound by the end of this year, and “would hope to look for our first royalty revenue in the first quarter of 2010,” Snyder said.

Another sweet flavor enhancer under development, S6973, makes something with 6 percent sucrose content taste almost twice as sweet, based on a blinded panel of taste testers, Snyder said. “This could be very interesting from a health perspective because if you can reduce the amount of calories by half and [therefore] improve the nutritional content, it has the potential to be very widely used,” Snyder said. Sucrose is in almost all foods, including yogurt, cereal, beverages, and cookies, with a global market of $63 billion in sales annually, Snyder said. Getting just a piece of that would be very sweet, indeed.